An old man is sat on a bench in the full glare of the sun on a busy city street. He’s scratching his forearm and his stare is glassy. Pigeons bob and weave around him. I know the man well; he’s as much a part of the bench as the rust on its nails or the scars in the weathered wood. He’s expiring, and not far from the tape. He sits there most days, paying no attention to the bustle of the city street. He sits, not knowing why he hasn’t been lifted from the grey of the world around him, to somewhere a little better, a little brighter perhaps.
But, I think I know why.
There was a time for him, when the corner building he is sat opposite wasn’t a falafel bar, but a second hand book store called, ‘The Written Word’. It was a small store, with one shelf halving the room, and walls of craggy, peeling spines of aging novels poking out either side. He passed it by often enough – books were never an interest he consciously immersed himself in. One day, the path was narrowed by a wooden box propped in front of the store, with a piece of paper reading, ‘£1 Books!’ pinned to it. Trying to avoid a passerby, he tripped over the box, stumbling onto the doorway of The Written Word. He grumbled, nursing his throbbing ankle and looked up into the store.
A girl was sat on a wicker chair in the corner near the counter, her legs crossed, her knees folded over. She was reading a poetry book, which was perched in her small thin hands. She smiled to herself, and turned a page softly, gently like it was a newborns skin. She was beautiful. She was everything. Everything an eighteen year old boy couldn’t stand to be without, even if he didn’t know what that everything was. But it was something, something beyond comprehension or understanding, and he was stuck fast to the doorway, gazing at her.
She soon stood up, like a blossoming flower, it took her time to rise from the wicker chair, but when she did, her hair brushed against her lips and her dress flowed and hugged against her figure. He felt his stomach turn to rock and drop to his throbbing ankle. He turned and took off down the street, his body prickling with cold heat.
He walked past The Written Word everyday from that first sighting of her. For five days, she wasn’t there, and he felt foolish for thinking she would be. She was probably from out of town, just visiting, and there he was, floating by this second hand book store waiting for a girl he would probably never see again, who probably wouldn’t even notice him anyway. But it didn’t stop him. He clung to a small, hardly breathing idea, that he would see her again. He had to. He needed to. She was perfect.
On the sixth day, a Sunday, he vowed it would be the last time he walked past The Written Word, if she wasn’t there, he would give up. When he came to the corner, his pace slowed, and his heart felt like a fish caught on a line. He looked through the window, and he saw her.
Every Sunday, between one and two in the afternoon, she would walk into The Written Word. He would already be there, leant up against the shelves. The books smelt of old grass, and she smelt of vanilla, he was sure of it; the sickly aroma would reach him whenever she walked delicately into the store. He would stand holding open the pages of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Keats. She would read her poetry, smile, laugh shyly through her nose, sigh, rustle her fingers through her not long but not short hair, and she wouldn’t look up once. Not a flicker. Her eyes stayed turned down to the dusted yellow surfaces of the poems. He would hold his breath, sweat, forget to turn the pages, cough softly, then a little louder, flex, tap his feet, and forget to look away when she stood up from the chair. She would leave with a new book of poetry each week. He did the same, although the books he chose, he never intended to read. The owner knew the real reason he came by every Sunday, and an understanding kept his tongue still.
Those books are still with him, on the shelves of his one bedroom flat, still unturned, collecting dust and regret. And they tell him each and every day, “You never once said hello.”
One Sunday, whilst he was impatiently and absentmindedly flicking the pages of Kafta, she didn’t appear. It happened again the following Sunday, and again, and again. He soon stopped visiting The Written Word, and took to sitting on the bench across the street. The small book store closed down in time, taking with it that small, barely breathing idea that he would see her again, one day.
He sits, with the pigeons cooing around his feet, watching the people going in and out of the falafel bar, and he thinks. He thinks to himself, why haven’t I left this place? Why haven’t I been lifted from here?
And I think I know why, old man.
It’s so much harder to leave, when you’ve left a part of yourself behind.
Sam Grainger is a recent Creative Writing graduate. He writes stories out of acute restlessness. He’s not told to write them any more, so they don’t appear as often as they used to.
His Twitter is: @SGraingy
Photograph courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.com